February 12, 2009

U.S., Russian satellites collide

For the first time, two intact communications satellites have collided in space above the Earth, NASA officials say.

The space crash nearly 500 miles above ground created hundreds of pieces of debris Tuesday. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said its initial evaluation is the space garbage poses a very small though elevated risk to the International Space Station, which orbits about 220 miles above Earth, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

NASA and Pentagon officials said one satellite involved in this collision was an Iridium satellite launched in 1997 and used for the company's telephone network, the Post said. The other was a Russian Cosmos satellite launched in 1993 that hadn't been working for a decade.

Pieces of spacecraft and other materials have collided in space before but not entire satellites, the newspaper said. The debris from the two satellites will spread over time, potentially forcing NASA to have the space station take evasive action at some point, something it has had to do several times in the past.

A NASA memo called the situation fluid, but that officials have determined that the risk to the space station is elevated, and they estimate the risk to be very small and within acceptable limits.